By Carol Tannenhauser
“Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.” – Will Rogers
Sometime after Labor Day, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will decide the fate of the 133-year-old West-Park Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street.
The church was given landmark status 12 years ago, against the wishes of its congregation, who knew the designation would make it harder to sell. Even then, the church was in bad condition. Now, the congregation has found a buyer — who wants the land beneath it, but not the church itself — and they are asking the commission to remove the building’s landmark status, on the grounds that it is beyond repair and has ruined them financially. If the church’s petition — called a “hardship application” — is approved, the building can be demolished and sold to developer Alchemy Properties, which is planning to replace it with a 19-story, luxury, market-rate condominium building.
The question before the commission and the community is, does this church have such historic or architectural value that it needs to be preserved, despite the considerable financial obstacles to preservation?
In the world of historic preservation, it’s a perennial question — one that “could have been asked 200 years ago,” said Whitney Martinko, a history professor at Villanova University and author of Historic Real Estate: Market Morality and the Politics of Preservation in the Early United States, in a recent telephone interview.
In fact, that question was asked more than 200 years ago, in one of the country’s first historic preservation battles. In 1813, the Pennsylvania state legislature proposed selling the Pennsylvania Statehouse, known today as Independence Hall — where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed, and the Liberty Bell rang. The would-be buyer was a real estate developer who wanted to demolish the building and divide the land into building lots. The state intended to use the proceeds from the sale to build a grander statehouse in the new state capital of Harrisburg.
The original statehouse was located in Philadelphia. It had been designated the seat of the colonial legislature in 1729. When the building was nearly finished in 1735, “legislators mandated that the open ground south of the structure ‘never be converted into or made use of for erecting any building thereupon'” Martinko wrote in her book. Instead, the ground was to “‘remain a publick open green and walk for ever.'”
Even back then, when the statehouse was surrounded by acres and acres of undeveloped land, legislators knew that “open spaces” needed to be preserved. And they were “incensed” that the statehouse would be sold as “common real estate,” Martinko said.
They were “incensed” that the statehouse would be sold as “common real estate.”
The arguments around the Pennsylvania statehouse debate sound familiar today: the state wanted to sell the building for real estate development; the Philadelphia City Council opposed that, saying it would put private buildings in place of green space that provided “vital air, light and recreation…to a growing urban populace.” And it would mean tearing down “an irreplaceable monument to a watershed moment in world history.”
It took five years, but the City of Philadelphia ultimately raised the $70,000 needed to buy the statehouse and adjoining land — the asking price was $150,000 — and has owned it ever since. In 1966, it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and, in 1979, was named a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, “not for its architectural design but for the documents of fundamental importance to American history drafted and debated here that formed the democracy of the United States,” UNESCO wrote. It is open to the public, and, inside, you can take a guided tour from a National Park Service ranger.
Even before the Pennsylvania Statehouse fight, American communities were grappling with preservation issues. And churches were often at the center of those debates.
“In the 1810s and 1820s, there were already very old churches in the U.S.,” Martinko said. “Communities were debating: Is this church a community landmark? Should it remain standing because more people find meaning in it than just the congregants? They might remember walking past it as children, or that it was the most notable thing on the streetscape.”
In other words, people who never set foot inside a church to worship can still see value in preserving it. That was evident at a July 2022 hearing before NYC’s preservation commission, at which a woman testified that West-Park church “signifies home to me…its tower lets me know where to get off the bus.” Another Upper West Side supporter of preserving West-Park told Gothamist, “My windows look right over the church, the church is a part of my life.”
But in many cases, said Martinko, the churches themselves opposed efforts to make their buildings protected landmarks – just as the West-Park congregation is doing today. “Oftentimes the congregation would say, yes, but the mission of our church, whether it’s worshipping or helping impoverished people, could be better served by using our old building for capital, selling it on the marketplace and putting the money toward the mission,” Martinko said.
Today, West-Park Presbyterian Church has a dozen congregants and no pastor. But it was once thriving and mission driven. During the AIDS epidemic in 1987, when little was known about the disease, West-Park was the only one of a dozen churches asked that agreed to lend its kitchen to the fledgling organization known as God’s Love We Deliver, which brought meals to homebound AIDS-sufferers, despite unknown risks at the time.
West-Park church was also “the original home of Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare festival and the first church in New York City to support gay marriage,” testified City Council Member Gale Brewer at a 2009 commission hearing.
The West-Park building is architecturally significant. Built between 1882 and 1889 by leading architects of the time, it was called by the Landmarks Commission “one of the Upper West Side’s most important buildings,” sitting as a “powerful anchor for the intersection of two major thoroughfares.” It is also recognized as “one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival-style religious structure in New York City,” the commission said when it gave the church landmark status. But the commission’s report at the time also noted that, “Sections of the church’s stone cladding, some of its windows, and many of its decorative elements are presently in a state of decay.”
And that was 12 years ago.
One of the central arguments in the debate over whether to continue preserving West-Park church revolves around the price tag for needed repairs. The church façade is a mess. For more than two decades, its red-sandstone base has been obscured by a sidewalk shed, put up to protect pedestrians from pieces of the façade that might fall. Those seeking the landmarks commission’s approval of West-Park’s hardship application say the building is unstable, its walls tilting outward, its sandstone crumbling, and the cost of necessary renovations — inside and outside – exceeding $50 million.
Those pushing for continued preservation call that estimate greatly inflated. They note that the building is functioning well as a neighborhood performing arts center (it has great acoustics), and they blame the congregation for allowing it to decline. “Demolition by neglect” should not be rewarded, they have argued at the commission’s two meetings on the issue.
When the church was landmarked on January 12, 2010, politicians – primarily Brewer – as well as community groups and neighbors pledged to raise the money for renovations. But the funds were not raised, which makes renewed pledges from Brewer and others this year subject to skepticism. The congregation has dwindled to about a dozen members who claim they are out of resources to sustain the church, let alone repair it.
If the congregation’s hardship application is successful, Alchemy Properties will pay $33 million for the razed church, which will go to the Presbytery of New York, the body overseeing the 90-or-so Presbyterian congregations throughout New York City. The Presbytery has said the money would be used to support their social missions. In addition to the 10,000 square feet the West-Park congregation will get in the new building, it will also receive an endowment from the Presbytery to create a new place of worship in that space, which could also be used as a community center.
The Landmarks Commission is not used to sorting out this sort of situation; its mission is to save historic structures, not issue their death sentences. Hardship applications have been exceedingly rare in the commission’s 57-year history; only 13 have been granted.
The commission was created in 1965 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Law, signed by then-Mayor Robert F. Wagner. In the decades since, it has designated more than 36,000 historic buildings and sites, according to the city’s website. To become an individual landmark, a building must be at least 30 years old and “have a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation.”
The New York City commission is the largest municipal preservation agency in the nation. Its 11 commissioners are appointed by the mayor for three-year terms, and it has a staff of 80 historians, architects, preservationists, lawyers, archeologists, and administrative aides.
The city’s commitment to preservation was spurred by the 1963 demolition of the original Pennsylvania (Penn) Station, a Beaux Arts building designed by the famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White and completed in 1911. The station covered two full city blocks, from 31st to 33rd Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
“Inside and out, the building was meant to be uplifting and monumental — like the Parthenon on steroids — its train shed and waiting room a skylit symphony of almost overwhelming civic nobility, announcing the entrance to a modern metropolis,” The Times once wrote.
But the “Parthenon on steroids” was torn down, in a transaction involving air rights, to make way for a new sports complex, Madison Square Garden, and an underground railroad station. Years later, Yale professor Vincent Scully, Jr. famously derided the change to the New York Times: “One entered the city like a god;” when arriving at Penn Station, but “one scuttles in now like a rat.”
“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
The commission researches buildings to find potential landmarks, including surveying buildings suggested by members of the public. It is unclear how the West-Park church was brought up for landmark consideration a dozen years ago, but clearly one of the champions of its landmark status was — and is — Gale Brewer.
Brewer – then, as now, the neighborhood’s representative on the city council – campaigned for making West-Park a landmark, but noted at the time: “There is more to do. This momentous designation sets the stage for the congregation, neighbors, Community Board 7, elected officials, and preservation groups to work in concert for the church’s spiritual and adaptive renewal.”
But in the 12 years since, there has been no financial rescue plan for West-Park, and conditions have continued to deteriorate. Its members argue that, if freed from the financial drain of the building, they will be able to resurrect the congregation and begin serving their social mission again.
But Martinko, the historian, says there may be other ways for the church to find the financial means to achieve its mission. “What if they said, we could sell it for less to another developer who wants to build some affordable housing?” she asked. That might satisfy some critics of the luxury condo proposal, but it would still mean tearing down the church. “We could also look at this through the lens of sustainability,” Martinko added. “How much waste would be generated by the destruction of this building? Where will it go but right to a landfill? How does that relate to climate change?”
After two public sessions this year to allow comments for and against the church’s proposal, the landmarks commission announced it would finance an independent, expert assessment of the church’s damage and estimated costs to repair and restore it. The findings of the assessment are to be presented to the commission and the public sometime in September. Then, or sometime in the future, the commissioners will vote on whether to continue protecting West-Park Presbyterian Church, or let it face the wrecking ball.